Slovakia's Fico under fire for foreign trips

Prime Minister Robert Fico

The popularity rating of Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico hit 42 percent in January and half of Slovaks surveyed say they support his party. Fico is popular at home, but his foreign policy tactics have been severely criticized by the opposition and the media. The prime minister is scheduled to visit Libya at the beginning of this month and also plans to visit Venezuela's Hugo Chavez later this year, and he's not averse to a quick trip to China along the way.

Prime Minister Fico argues that it's for economic reasons that he wants to travel - to diversify Slovakia's economic relationships. But, the opposition views it as a tragedy: they argue that Fico is pushing aside the European Union, NATO as well as the United States. Some argue this might make Slovakia lose its credibility on the international front. Ivo Samson is part of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. He explains where Fico's ideology stems from.

SAMSON: "In his ideology, he is a former communist. He didn't support the revolution in 1989 -obviously. He's a man of leftist ideology. He's quite obviously anti-American and, now, he has the opportunity to transform his ideas into political reality."

This political reality is what the opposition is putting pressure on. The opposition parties have been united in attacking the prime minister's travel plans. Ivo Samson thinks that they have good tools to criticize Fico.

"The prime minister is going to visit Libya, which has problems with human rights. He's going to visit probably Venezuela -and its leader- which was involved in problems with the Iranian leader Ahmadinejad The prime minister promised to the Serbian president a support in case of the Kosovo status. So, that it's a lot of issues which the opposition has in hands and which enables it to criticize the prime minister."

Pál Csáky is the former deputy prime minister for human rights from 1998 to 2006. He thinks that Prime Minister Fico's travel plans are a mistake.

Csáky: "Concerning his visit to Libya, I don't understand why Mr. Prime Minister is ready to visit Libya in such a situation. I'm afraid it's a mistake. I don't see the real reason why Minister Fico is ready to visit such a problematical country."

What do you think of his argument saying that he's going for economic development for Slovakia, rather than the issue of human rights, for example?

"Such a declaration is not acceptable for me. I think will be an element for the sceptical voices, also from the side of the European Union. What (is) the real orientation of our foreign policy?"

Two university students at a café in Bratislava offered their criticism of Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Student 1: "Countries not very democratical and Slovak Republic is a democratic country."

Student 2: "The general population voted for him, and it's the people, in my opinion, who, before that, and they voted for Fico, they voted for Meciar. And, they are not really into freedom and stuff. They just want somebody to guide them, and anything he says is alright. They don't really care: they don't want to know."

Fico will go on with his travel plans, but this might ruin Slovakia's chances to build up its credibility on the international front - according to Ivo Samson - especially as it's still a young nation

"It's in the long-term counter-productive if you lose this credibility because it will take much time re-win this credibility once more. So, at the time being, well, it sounds quite innocent, but I believe if this policy is going to continue in the next months, or even years, it will be much more difficult in the next years to win back just this big portion of credibility (that) Slovakia won in international affairs in the last years."

Fico has two choices: to continue to build Slovakia's credibility, or push his own political agenda. The prime minister postponed his visit to Libya, but whether or not he will actually go this month, and more importantly, whether he will mention the five Bulgarian nurses who are on death row in Libya, will depend on how much criticism, he will face when he comes back home.